We arrived at about 7:00 a.m. at Guilin Railway Station. Off the train and out of the train station shortly thereafter, we walked wearily though we were not overly tired. The forced early morning start was good in that we were now up and had a nice long, full day to do stuff.
Out of our group of six, three of us were going to catch the 9:25 p.m. train back to Shenzhen that night of that same day. Three of us, including me, were to stay overnight and catch the train back the next day. To this effect, we all went to the hotel that three of us booked, where we all put our stuff for the day.
The reception at the small hotel (named Guilin Riverside Hostel) was extremely nice, especially by Chinese standards, and helped us book our Li River Cruise the next day. As I was to find out, Guilin is really a tourist town (more like city), and many people are very nice as I ended up spending a lot more money than anticipated.
After stopping at the hotel, we went out to the main street to find bus number 11 to Seven Star Park. While we were walking though, a taxi driver offered to take us around the city for ¥30 CNY for the whole day to as many tourist sights as we wanted. When we made it clear that we would need two cabs since there were six of us, the cab driver brought over an additional cab driver, and the price for both sat at ¥50 CNY, all people included. It sounded unreasonably cheap, and I was a little weary of taking them up on their deal.
After a bit of group deliberation, we decided that it would be fine. Though they would be going off the meter for us, they were official cab drivers, legitimate and legal, and we figured that even if they upped the price on us at the end of the day, it would still be really cheap.
So we hopped in the cabs. Since we now had longer-distance transportation, we figured we’d see the sights farther out first. First on the list was breakfast, now Reed Flute Cave (芦笛岩), which sat on the outside of the city and was a considerable walk from the closest bus stop.
The cabs went all of a block-and-a-half to get to where the drivers took us for breakfast. The place was in a backstreet and served really good Guilin noodles (桂林米粉), a big bowl for ¥3 CNY, which I later found out that you pour soup into
The city was quite dense, and though the air was not noticeably polluted, the traffic was often gridlocked, and it took us a while to get out to the mountains.
Guilin is famous for its mountains. They are unusually vertical and skinny for their height, and they noticeable pop up from relatively flat ground. Most are covered with vegetation, and some have temples built on top. The majority of them, though, sit grouped in formations that have led many a Chinese poet to muse over their beauty and uniqueness much in the same way they’ve marveled over Hangzhou and Suzhou. And with Mao Zedong on one side of the ¥20 bill, one particular scene from these mountains is printed on the other. They truly are one of the many prides of China.
We arrived at Reed Flute Cave and bought out tickets at what I thought was the entrance. Actually, we gave our money to the taxi drivers, who went up to the window and bought our tickets for us. After that, they drove us to the actual entrance, probably another half mile down the road.
The entrance, while not done up, was noticeably commercially centered, with an official gift shop selling goods and hawkers selling the same goods for less. Entering the cave was unlike any cave that I had been in before.
Yes, I’ve been in caves before—two to be exact, namely in the Jewel Cave in Black Hills, South Dakota (where Mount Rushmore is), and Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Each was about the same as the other. There were small caves to crawl though and generally a few larger caves. All of it was lit brightly to avoid accidents and considerably cooler than the aboveground weather.
Reed Flute Cave was pretty much the same actually. The main differences were in the way it was actually done up. The floors were all relatively wide and concreted flat with aggregate stone. The caves were lit with bright, alternating colors. Places were concreted to accumulate water to make the interior more picturesque, in which case tube LED lights would light the shoreline between the pond and the path.
I thought that while it was visually appealing (minus the visible LED tube lighting), it wasn’t what I felt nature should be. I’ve thought that nature is best left untouched—a concept, which I now know, I was taught.
Inside the caves, besides stalactite and stalagmite formations, were also some big turtles being attended to by staff members. Each was named by a sign saying “Thousand-year-old Turtle,” the validity, of which, I of course doubted. For each turtle (there were three total) you could pet, which of course, was as fun as petting any turtle, with the same fear that it could nip your hand off (though they were so lethargic that they probably didn’t care at that point in their lives). Two, you could buy pendants off their shells and one you could buy food to feed it.
Exiting, I used the bathroom, which reminded me of the infamous pooper stoopers that China is known for and the general lack of sanitary measures both on the ground and through the lack of soap next to the sink. For a country that’s so concerned about a swine flue pandemic, it would seem reasonable that more measures would take place to prevent the spread of germs, and by extension, disease.
Though the tour through the caves was guided, the path was clear, and most visitors, especially us for our lack of Mandarin comprehension, ended up wandering around by ourselves. By the end I forgot that there was even a guide to begin with. The taxi drivers met us at the exit of the caves.
Next on the journey was Yaoshan (瑶山), which is the highest peak in the range of mountains around Guilin. The park had a cable car going up, which we took. At the top, we got the classic frame of the beautiful mountains that Guilin is known for. Again, the cab drivers took our money and paid for the tickets. They said they needed to do so to get free parking for the taxis.
On the cable car ride and at the cable car stop, the view was not the best though, because though it was a sunny day, fog masked the clouds and all that was visible were faint outlines. From the cable car stop, walking further up towards the top of the hill, the view did not get any better, though the white members of our group kept getting asked by the locals to take pictures with them because I guess they don’t see white people that often. They didn’t mind, and I even ended up taking the picture.
Taking the chairlift half back down the mountain, you’re prompted to get off. As part of the round-trip ticket to the top of the mountain and back, there is a toboggan-style ride to get from midway down the mountain all the way to the bottom, believe it or not.
Unfortunately, I got few pictures of the ride itself, since I was told I couldn’t take pictures while speeding down the winding metal track. We were allowed to control our speed with a lever and warned that there’s a sharp curve at the very beginning that’s kind of nasty that we definitely need to slow down for. I was sure that many of my friends would just go for it at full speed, because, I guess, you only live once.
I, on the other hand, took my time. While in parts I did go fast for fun, I figured I was only going to go down the slope of this mountain once, so I would rather enjoy it. As I went down, there were a lot of safety personnel that I didn’t expect. Most stood on right before the curved sections to blow their whistle to prompt you to slow down if need be.
I could feel the fresh Guilin air through my hair I suppose. But while the ride was exhilarating, there was no real view involved with the track layout. It was fine, because, I guess, we’d already gotten the view on the top and on the chairlift.
At the foot of the hill, next to the visitor center, there were some small shops. We went to a small coffee shop hoping for a good cup, as some of us were starting to crash from the early start to the day, but it was exactly how it was in Beijing airport—noticeably “brewed” from instant and quite sub-par.
Meanwhile, the taxi drivers were booking tickets for us for the Four Rivers, Two Lakes cruise later that evening. The later came up to join us at the coffee shop, where we found I found out that they were sisters.
The time now was around 12:30 p.m., and the cruise was set for 4:15 p.m. So with hours to spare, we decided to check out the Ming Palace along the way. It’s officially called the Jingjian Princes City (靖江王城), and while it was never used as the main residence of the royals, it served as one point from where the ruler could do business.
Once again the sisters insisted on buying our tickets for us after we gave them our money. It became apparent that what seemed at first just a courtesy was actually a way for them to make money. For the price that we were to pay, it now made sense how cheap it was, and frankly, we were fine with it, because for the individual sites we still paid the listed entrance fee.
Entering, the complex looked small and unimpressive with the exception of the lone mountain the middle. To get to the mountain, we went through building upon building, ranging from dining halls to bedrooms and throne rooms, and the cave under the mountain.
After coming out of the cave on the other side of the mountain, we realized that we’d missed the path to the top. It ended up being on the west side of the hill, and when we got to the foot of the steps, the path that we were about to climb became visible and clearly steep.
All things considered—namely how long the day had already run—the climb wasn’t too bad. It was taller than it looked and the view of Guilin from the top was pretty good. There were a few buildings at the top, as well as a place to buy drinks, of course. From there you could clearly see the way that the city formed on the flat land around the mountains.
I guess you could say I’ve got a thing for getting the bird’s-eye view of a city. In Rome, it was as simple as the roof terrace of the hotel. In Paris, it was the Arc du Triomphe (because we didn’t go up the Eiffel Tower). In Hong Kong, the view I got was from the Peak. Chicago—Sears Tower (now renamed). Both the Ferris wheel and Taipei 101 did the trick in Taipei.
At this time, we still had a couple hours before the cruise, so we got lunch. The food was good, though we had to eat around of the odd-sized bits of bone with the lamb.
After walking around a local supermarket for a bit and checking out what was there to be offered, we went over the center of Guilin, where the famous pair of pagodas stands.
The cruise was supposed to go for an hour and a half, but ended up going for about an hour. The usual route was not taken for a couple reasons. First the normal course would have run straight past Elephant Trunk Hill, a symbol of Guilin that has been effectively monetized by strategically planting trees to block views from the street and charging ¥30 to get into the park. In addition, according to the taxi drivers, the water level when we went was too low, so many boats by design cannot wade through those waters.
Waiting for the cruise to board, another group of locals insisted on getting a picture with the white people in our group. I took a photo as well.
We got a good picture of Guilin, though. It was very obvious which edifices were historical and which ones were new development. Many of the hills that we saw were covered with climbers and hikers. At the end of its course, right before turning around, there was a well-kept historical-looking area whose name we never found out.
By the time we met up with the taxi drivers again, it was nearing 6:00 p.m., and with half of us getting on a train in just three hours, we decided it would be best to just grab dinner. Anyways, one of my friends wanted to go see the “Dream of Li River” show, which was to begin at 8:00. The cab drivers helped us book us tickets and later picked them up for us.
We asked the sisters to take us somewhere local to eat—and I would find out, it was a little too local for me. The menu had all sorts of exotic things listed. Absent were beef, pork, or chicken dishes, since I guess we weren’t taken to a touristy restaurant.
So we tried it. There was a plate of snails, a plate of Li River shrimp, some soup, some sort of fried rice, and white rice. I ended up with some fried rice and a whole lot of white rice. I tried the soup, and I while I could see why others like it, it just didn’t suit my taste.
Also, I tried the Guilin Li River snails. One actually was enough for me. The snails were small, as were the shrimp, and I found myself trying to get the meat of sorts out of the shell with a toothpick. Once that was successfully done, I put the object into my mouth, aiming to look as little as possible at it, which was easier said than done. I chewed a few times and it was notably mushy, with a little crunch at the end. I took a picture of the animal’s now empty shell and that was the end of that experience.
On the other hand, one of my friends took quite a liking to those snails and ended up eating most of them. With his plate of empty snail shells in front of him, I dubbed him the snail master. Another one of my friends were showing everyone how to peel the shell off cooked shrimp in his mouth and without hands, causing me to be impressed and others to look away. With his plate piled high with shrimp shells, I dubbed him the shrimp master.
The sisters ate with us as well, and they ate a bit of everything really. I guess it fits since they were probably from Guilin and were accustomed to the local food. The whole day, they had been really helpful to us—offering advice about where to go and helping us get tickets, so the group treated them to dinner.
From there, we went back to the hotel for them to get their bags. There we decided that we were each going to chip in ¥20 CNY each for the cab, which added up to ¥120, which was more than the ¥50 they asked for, because, well they deserved it, and ¥20 per person for the whole day is really not that much money (about $2.90 USD). From the hotel, our cabs split in different directions. One went to the train station.
Mine went to the “Dream of Li River” show. It wasn’t that it wasn’t impressive, but for someone who’s already seen most all of the acts of that show done in different places, with more skill, it was kind of a letdown. Similar in the ballet-based show we saw in Beijing, “History of Kung Fu,” as well as to the shows I saw in 2007 in Beijing and in Xian, in addition to the show I saw at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza in 2006, I was kind of disappointed at their lack of originality.
Though that day ended on a low note, the overall activities that we got accomplished in that first day well overcame the mediocrity of the evening ballet-style show. The sheer volume of events that we did made me feel like the morning we arrived was a full day earlier.
Guilin was really more than I expected in the atmosphere that I got from the city, though the scenery was a bit of a let down through the choking fog. Little did I know of the beauty that was to come but the next day.
Copyright © 2009 James Philip Jee
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2 years ago